We're out of here!
Imagine that you just received an email from your pastor. You open it up and read the following:
"After much thought and prayer, my wife and I have made the difficult decision to begin a transition to another church out of state."
What if you received the above statement without any previous awareness that your pastor was considering this kind of transition? How would you feel? Surprised? Abandoned? Or if you have invested a lot into your church, you might even feel betrayed.
I have been on the receiving end of a few of these kinds of letters over the years. Not from pastors but from members of our church family. They came with little or no warning and some of them really hurt. Really. You know with that gutwrenching kind of hurt. Here's my point, we need to be extremely careful in deciding why and how we should leave a local church.
Now I want to be very clear, I don't believe that any of the people who wrote me those letters intended to hurt me or to act in an ungodly manner. I don't claim to know all the ends and outs of why those decisions were made. I don't seek to stand in judgment. I don't have bitter feelings against any of them nor do I mean to shame them by writing this letter. I know many godly people who have chosen to leave churches in a similar way. There are current members of our church, who left their previous churches in a similar way. I personally––I'll repeat that––I personally have made related choices in a similar manner. I know pastors, whom I respect, who have announced to their church families without prior warning that they were leaving. My aim isn't to shame any of us but to raise some important questions and seek to provide thoughtful and biblical answers.
In other words, I'm becoming more and more convinced that what we might see as normal and acceptable is more the result of the church being influenced by our culture than by the Bible. Like fish swimming in water totally unaware that they are wet, we have become so accustomed to the post-modern understanding of the autonomous self that we don't even realize it.
"Like fish swimming in water totally unaware that they are wet, we have become so accustomed to the post-modern understanding of the autonomous self that we don't even realize it."
The questions are: (1) how should a person go about leaving a local church? (2) what are bad reasons for leaving and (3) what are legitimate reasons to leave a church?
(1) How should a person go about leaving a local church?
Many people would say that they have been led by God to leave one church and go to another. Many pastors tell their congregations that God has called them to another city. "This is what I feel God is leading me to do" and "As I've prayed about it, I feel like this other church is a better fit" are common things to hear. These statements imply that a person has sensed the leading of the Spirit in a certain direction.
The Scriptures undoubtingly speak of the Spirit giving insight and guidance to believers. But how do we determine that these are actually insights from the Holy Spirit? "Well, from the Bible," you might be inclined to answer. And while that is a right answer, there's an ovious dilemma. The Bible does not specifically say things like "Nathan Cedarland should be a member of Kaleo for 10 years, and then he should plant a church in California." So if I were to "feel led" to plant a church in California how would I verify that this "leading" is in fact from the Spirit? Of course, I should test it in light of Scripture and make sure it's not in contradiction, but that will only take me so far because there are lots of possible scenarios that are not in contradiction with Scripture. Of course, I should also think logically about it. However, that approach is limited as well because God often calls us to do things that don't make sense by human reasoning.
What then? In 1 Corinthians 14:29-32, we see a principle for determining if our "sense of leading" or our insight are really from God. Paul says that when a person has a prophetic word or spiritual insight it should be tested by the other believers who are present in the church. Since other believers also have the Holy Spirit we can be more confident of a "sense of leading" or "word of knowledge" when it is weighed and confirmed by other believers.
"Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh
what is said." (1 Corinthians 14:29)
I don't think this means every believer in the church needs to confirm your "sense of leading" but it clearly seems to establish the principle of confirming subjective feelings or senses in the context of community. Notice the words "I" and "me" in the examples previously given: "This is what I feel God is leading me to do" and "As I've prayed about it, I feel like this other church is a better fit for me." Here again, we see the influence of western individualism on the church. Yet the emphasis of the Bible is not on believers as individuals but on believers as members of a rescued and redeemed covenant community.
Another feature of post-modern thinking is suspicion of authority. Yet in Romans 13:1, God says that authority is actually His idea. "For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God." While the context of this verse refers to political governing authorities, other passages (see 1 Thes 5:12 and Hebrews 13:17) clearly speak of the authority that is given to church leadership. Of course, church leaders must be careful not to domineer or misuse their authority, but serve humbly following the example of Christ (see 1 Peter 5:2-3). These passages and others make it clear that God has given leaders for the blessing and protection of the church. An All-Gracious God has designed church leadership for our protection and flourishing within the body of Christ. This is His idea. Would it make sense to make major decisions without seeking the counsel and blessing of your church leadership? Would God call us to do something that contradicts the authority structure that He has designed and revealed to us in Scripture? It is true that there are times when that authority structure becomes corrupt, and a decision without the blessing of church leadership may be necessary (in that case seeking counsel from other godly leaders would be an alternative) but too often we ignore this authority altogether.
So how should one go about leaving a local church? Based on the above arguments from Scripture, I would encourage a person to go to their church leadership and express that they are considering leaving long before a final decision is made. This will help protect against unwise and unbiblical decisions, unnecessary division, and unnecessary emotional pain to shepherds who love their sheep.
If at some point in the future, I sense the Spirit leading me to move and plant another church somewhere else. My commitment, by the grace of God, is that those in our church family will know that we are in the process of weighing things out before a final decision is ever made, and that we will welcome their prayerful counsel and insight. By the grace of God, our promise to our church family is that we will seek to submit to the other leaders in the church, and pursue their confirmation of our sense of calling before choosing to leave.
So don't make the decision alone, make it prayerfully, make it in community, and make it as one who is under God-given authority.
I am not saying that those who left our church are in sin unless they come back. My word to them would be "commit to the church you are currently attending and be careful not to fall into a habit of hopping around." Nor am I saying that those who currently attend our church, and who left their previous church in this way should necessarily return to their old churches but should prayerfully make a decision (if they haven't already) to commit to where they are at now and use the above guidelines if at some point in the future they are considering a move to another church. Can you imagine the amount of division and distraction that this would eliminate, leading to a greater gospel effectiveness and witness to the world?
I'll seek to address the last two questions in part 2. God willing.
Nathan Cedarland is a servant-leader of Kaleo Grays Harbor, a church plant in Aberdeen, WA. He is passionate about God, his family (his wife Julissa and their five kids), his church family, equipping the Spanish-speaking church throughout the Americas, and film-making.